The Death of Disney Animation (Part Three of Two)

The Death of Disney Animation (Part Three of Two)

If there is one thing that Disney trained executives universally fail at, it is processing bad news that will remain bad news.

No matter how bad some event is, Disney trained execs are always going to try and find “a spoon full of sugar” from somewhere. Doesn’t matter if it is an extinction-level event, they are going to view every problem as an opportunity, even if it is obviously an insoluble opportunity

Optimism is nice and all.  But when you are deep in the woods, no cell service, no radio, no compass or map and there is a blizzard coming in. It is not the time to wander slowly around examining the beauty and wonders of nature. 

After the abject failure of Soul and the collapse of the Disney channels, the truth that they are magnificently failing to face is that they no longer have the ability to make movies or even TV that children like.  

Let me restate that.

Disney (freaking) Entertainment has LOST the kid’s market.

By every conceivable metric (except SJW critical approval), they have lost the audience that built the company.

The reason they’ve lost that market is that Bob Iger threw away his Irreplaceable Man.

Let me start by stating, that I come to bury John Lasseter not to praise him.  While he presided over what was nearly a second Disney Renaissance, his time at the company ultimately resulted in leading the animation studios into a pattern of decaying artistic failure. 

I’ll try to give credit where it’s due but the breakdown of artistic integrity that Lasseter led is self-evident.

John Lasseter was born in Hollywood.  His father was the parts manager at a Chevy dealership and his mother was an art teacher. He appears to have been firmly swayed by his mother, who strongly encouraged him to pursue a career as an artist. He did the usual kid with an artistic bent thing of constantly making doodles and sketches. Interestingly enough he appears to have been a lot more heavily influenced by Chuck Jones than he was Walt Disney. 

This is his first film.  Lady and the Lamp.

Lasseter was one of the first students in Disney’s (unofficial) incubator program at CalArts.  There he was taught and quietly vetted by some very senior animators from Disney.  During this period, he also worked as a cast member at Disneyland on the Jungle Cruise as one of the skippers.  

He appears to have been quite the Pixie-Duster.  He loved Disney and all things Disney related.  When he was formally accepted as an animator at Disney Studios, it was one of the happiest days of his life. 

As naturally as a beaver builds a dam, Disney fucked him over.  

One of Walt Disney’s innovations for Bambi was a multi-plane camera system that provided animation for the background.  Basically, a number of background cells would be moved back and forth while the camera zoomed in or out as needed.  

When Lasseter saw the Tron light cycle test footage, he was blown away by the possibilities of computer animation.  He immediately began putting together a pitch using this new technique for a version of Where the Wild Things Are.

John Lasseter had just come up with a new idea, at a time in Disney’s history, when that was an EXTREMELY dangerous thing to do.  While Disney had once been the great innovator in animation, that momentum had been lost when Walt’s interests began focusing on live-action and the parks. After Sleeping Beauty, Disney Animation became known for its lack of creativity and repetitive storytelling.  And this was before Walt Disney died.  It became drastically worse during the, “Is that what Walt would want?” Period.

Lasseter’s pitch meeting, barely lasted long enough for Ron Miller to say, “I don’t get it.” Within quite literally minutes of that meeting, Lasseter was told, “Box your stuff.  Parking lot. Car. Front gate. Goodbye!” And just like that, his lifelong dream of making magic at Disney was crushed and thrown away like the remains of a McDonald’s Happy Meal. Disney was the only company he had ever wanted to work for, and now it was over.

John roused himself out of his depressed lassitude long enough to trudge down to San Diego for a computer graphics conference aboard the Queen Mary he’d been planning to attend.  There he ran into a friend who asked how his ‘Brave Little Toaster’ * project was doing.  Lasseter told him.

His friend told him to, “wait here for a second, I gotta make a phone call.”

A couple of minutes later his friend came running back to him and asked, “how do you feel about working for LucasFilm?”

His first project for them was a CGI knight made out stain glass for a sequence in Young Sherlock Holmes. After that Lasseter started working on shorts for LucasFilm’s new subdivision called Pixar.  Following a very messy divorce, Lucas had to sell it off to Steve Jobs.  Jobs was much more interested in the technical side of things. 

It should be noted that at this time, Pixar’s only real product was the Renderman software package. The Pixar shorts were cute and it was nice that they got awards and all, but they were ONLY there to generate eyeballs.  In fact, a lot of Pixar’s engineers felt that Lasseter’s stuff was a major distraction for the company’s focus and wanted to get rid of him.

Steve Jobs’ genius was in knowing when to listen to the horn-rim and pocket-protector guys and when not to. Lasseter’s division became Pixar Studios and was expanded when a TV special about animated toys was proposed.  

Toy Story came out in 1995… Two years after the first Veggie Tales video.  Just putting things in context.  

In fairness, Toy Story was the first CG animated movie that was good enough to be considered theatrical quality.

Woody and Buzz arrived at the height of the (so-called) Disney Renaissance.  The use of computers for background animation had gone from something that would get you fired for being mentioned to standard industry practice by the 1990s. In terms of art design, it was about Disney’s only real innovation.   Calling that period a renaissance is more than a little self-serving for Disney.  Sure, the animators were no longer shackled by the things Walt was doing forty years ago.  And, yes, audiences were suddenly trooping in to see Disney Animation.

But how good was the artwork when you look at it? 

There was genuine innovation in Oliver and Company as well as The Little Mermaid.  But by the time Toy Story came out, the life had been sucked out of the artists due to Disney’s crushing one feature a year production schedule.  It’s an open secret that The Lion King heavily cribbed its character designs from Osuma Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion.  The stories aren’t the same but the points of similarity in the artwork are too close to be disputed by anyone except a Disney lawyer.

As the Nineties drew to a close there was little more than a burlesque of creativity going on at Disney. 

The last movie where I feel the animators were actually trying to “plus it” was Treasure Planet.  Yes, the story was bad, and it couldn’t support the film, but it is very much a visual marvel. It was the first new stuff that wasn’t the result of Katzenberg’s treadmill. Treasure Planet was a gorgeous, fantastic mix of CG, hand drawn animation, and deep canvass. **

Greatly it dared but greatly it failed.  

The truth is that it was never going to succeed in 2002, the damage being done to American animation by cheap American, straight to DVD knockoffs was severe in the 2000s. 

In the meantime, Pixar had developed a reputation that was based on the quality of their stories and more importantly the infrequency with which you got to see them.  They only came out once every three years and they never made sequels.

The company that created the hand-drawn feature, film threw in the towel with the execrable, Home on Range.  A film so cheaply made; it was clear that Disney was only trying to gauge if there was any kind of theatrical market for hand-drawn at all.

The next problem American hand drawn animation faced was foreign competition.  “Japanamation” had gone from a niche market for weirdos to completely mainstream.

The last problem was the one that Disney chose to face.  Which was, Pixar’s computer-animated features. An ally had become a hostile competitor. So in 2006, Disney bought out Pixar and John Lasseter suddenly had his dream job. He was the new Walt.

John Lasseter’s contributions to the field of animation are kind of a mixed bag.  He was working on things that you could do with CG that you couldn’t do with conventional hand-drawn.  While he firmly maintains that CG is just a tool, not the driving force, he doesn’t provide a lot of proof for that statement.  And there is plenty to indicate that CG is indeed the driving force.

Pixar’s early works favored animating the inanimate.  I suspect this was fueled in part by Lasseter’s early success with the Lady and Lamp and his frustration with having lost The Brave Little Toaster.  And yet when you look at Lasseter’s Pixar catalog as a whole, the vast majority of his works featured this trope. His directing credits at IMDB are Toy Story, Toy Story 2, Cars, Cars 2.  The only film he directed that featured anything alive was A Bug’s Life.  The first film that Pixar released that featured humans didn’t come out until 2004 with The Incredibles.  

Then there is Lasseter’s preference for “what if” as opposed to “tell me about a guy who.” As a storyteller, he was locked in a pattern of having the setting drive the story.

CG was channeling creativity.  It was forcing it to go in a certain direction simply due to its own inherent limitations

Look at this deformed horror from Tin Toy.

Whereas the art design of the Tin Toy itself could at least lend itself to caricature if not out actual anthropomorphism.

The same goes for Knick Knack.  The figurines in this short were designed in a way that allowed for recognizable exaggeration of physical features.  

Resulting once again in humorous caricature.  

And was a lot more in keeping with the works of Chuck Jones than Walt Disney.

Lasseter found out early that CG’s biggest contribution was the things that you could do with light.  Using computer graphics you could mold light around a character in a way that had never been possible before.  

Also, allowing animated features to use live-action theatrical techniques for the first time such as leaving half of a character’s face in shadow.

You could also project light through a character, which simply isn’t possible with hand drawn

 “Art challenges technology, and technology inspires art.” -John Lasseter.

No, I’m sorry John but it doesn’t inspire art.  In truth it makes real art impossible.

Once the technology worked its way through the “oohs and aahs” of lighting and dynamic background, it was left with no place to go.  The reason is simple enough. With the current state of CG, you cannot put one person in charge of a character’s overall design. 

One guy is in charge of a character’s lighting, another is in charge of hair, another takes care of the eyeballs, and on and on the breakdown goes.  While there is a director trying to successfully mix it all together, there is no one with a cohesive artistic vision for the character, simply because it is impossible to have one.  Not when every single thing has to be broken down that far in terms of individual efforts. The fundamental problem of CG versus hand-drawn is on a human level.  There is no art to this artwork it’s all machine stamped. 

Regardless, the days when Disney concerned itself with artistic merits died with the company’s founder.

The writing was on the wall, the future was computer animation.  The 2D animation department at Hollywood Studios was shuttered and Disney moved into 3D computer animation.  After Home on the Range tanked the last hand drawn animation department Disney had was closed.

Here’s the really sad thing.  Hand animation has a timeless quality to it that CG simply does not.  Take a look at Toy Story or The Incredibles, today.  While cutting edge in its day, the CG is so badly dated that it takes you right out of the story

That doesn’t happen with Sleeping Beauty.

There was one abortive attempt to revive 2D with the Princess and the Frog.  I’ll give Disney credit; they did try to keep the home fires burning with that one.  But sadly, American attitudes at that time still equated hand-drawn animation with cheap straight to DVD rubbish. And let’s face it.  Everyone looked at the previews and thought Woke.  We didn’t have that word yet, but it was obvious that those politics was going to be on the menu at Tiana’s Place.

A few years later Disney shafted Lasseter a second time and this looks like it will be the last.  Lasseter is now ruthlessly raiding Disney for its top talent.  And it shows at Pixar.  Disney’s animation is becoming more and more lifeless.

However, I think there is hope for the future of American style hand-drawn animation.  You just won’t find it in America is all.

Try Spain.

*The Brave Little Toaster is a short story by Thomas Disch, about a bunch of appliances who have been left in the attic.  They move around and talk only when humans aren’t looking.  The toaster in question decides to set off in search of their beloved owner.  I shit you not, Toy Story was that original.

** Yes, a RE:View of it is on my to do list. Don’t be a pest about it.

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Comments (14)

  • Old Mouse Reply

    “Art made by giant teams that split the detail work into distinct categories of focus isn’t real Art”
    And yet people keep ranting about wanting a return to the “artistry” of architecture by way of making giant public buildings in Classical or Baroque styles.

    January 19, 2021 at 1:03 am
    • The Dark Herald Reply

      This was made in 1975.

      In the Soviet Union of all places.

      January 19, 2021 at 1:19 am
      • Old Mouse Reply

        And that addresses my counterpoint… how?
        What I was trying to say is that hyper-technical multi-aspect creative work is not inherently anti-art. It’s not like there’s anything actually making it impossible for one design director to unilaterally draw a concept of what a character looks like and make the construction team adhere as accurately to it as is possible for the software. That has literally been a practice for years now.
        It’s also not like 2D film isn’t itself just as bad of a vast compartmentalized pipeline, with hyper-specialized drones drawing their own tiny disjointed segment of a scene for each frame of the whole product.

        January 19, 2021 at 1:35 am
        • The Dark Herald Reply

          It doesn’t address your counterpoint in any serious way.

          I just found it amusing and was looking for an excuse to post it.

          Which you provided.

          Thank you for that.

          January 19, 2021 at 1:41 am
          • Old Mouse

            You’re welcome then. I’m just glad I wasn’t missing something stupidly obvious.

            January 19, 2021 at 1:47 am
  • Seeker Reply

    A few overall comments:

    – If you look up the channel Your Movie Sucks, he’s done a comprehensive 2.5 hour debunking of the Lion king ripped off Kimba theory (being done as a part of his extended upcoming critique of the badly conceived CGI remake of the 2019 Lion King movie). He even got one of its major academic proponents to renounce it basically.

    – Speaking as someone who grew up in the 90s, CGI was not appealing for a child compared to 2D animation which looked much nicer at the time. However, while early CGI definitely has not aged well (something especially regrettable for the innovative videogames of the time), I would argue that at a certain point high quality CGI managed to enter into a place where it ages sufficiently well to become appealing. For example, the visuals of a movie like Frozen will age about as well as any 2D movie from the same time period. It’s like if you’ve ever seen really early Cartoons, which haven’t aged well and look awkward to most. They were still a necessary stepping stone to the final product.

    – Unfortunately for CGI, it started to become good at the same time movies started to become really dumbed down. Adding to the problem was that studios began misusing CGI and ripping off VFX people. For example, why did the same vfx studio that produced the CGI for Avatar also churn out the unreal and bad looking hobbit orcs. The answer is, they simply weren’t given enough time and money to do it realistically, so they were told to do it with stylization. Anyways, returning to the point on CGI, I would argue that it really began to enter into the “holds up well” stage (at least in terms of movies, with a few prior exceptions) in the 2010+ range. You can even argue that the visuals of CGI begin to get decent up as early as 2005 with Revenge of the Sith. General Grievous still looks great for example, but other elements like some of the excessive greenscreen backgrounds don’t hold up as well. Point being, no matter how advanced you go with CGI, something like General Grievous will still look fine to the eye. To give you some recent examples of what I’m talking about, consider the following trailers/promo videos for video games. I would contend that these are quite watchable in the future since they have an appealing style. In other words, they will never be ugly to watch unlike early CGI.

    – Ok, final point. One of the issues with CGI involves how willing you are to believe what’s being shown to you. Your eye is really good at spotting fakeness, and the more realistic something appears, the less inclined you become to be forgiving when things don’t act realistically. For example, you can have a guy punched through a building at 200 km/hour in a superhero cartoon and its fine. You don’t expect a 2D world to act realistically. Do the same thing in a realistic movie and it looks fake. CGI cartoons actually have it harder than 2D cartoons because you think they need to be more physically realistic. Lighting is the other big one as you pointed out. 2D cartoons don’t need realistic lighting while CGI requires complex realistic lighting simulations. That lighting is even harder to pull off in these combo CGI/Live action movies.

    January 19, 2021 at 8:58 am
  • Brick Hardslab Reply

    The stories matter in animation beyond novelty. The orcs in the Hobbit movies stank because the story stank. Jackson did his worst. John Carter was a misfire because they changed the source material too much. What need does the princess of Mars need the finest swordsman of two worlds if she’s a better swordsman? Why do we care about helium if we don’t know anything about it? And what’s with casting women in their late thirties or forties? Kind of a used up princess. Sorry rant over.

    January 19, 2021 at 4:49 pm
    • Patrick McNally Reply

      The woman in her 40s might go off very well if cast as a long-time devoted wife of John Carter. But like you said, they altered everything so that now she was a top scientist who “don’t need no man!” That killed the original theme and produced a deformed product.

      January 20, 2021 at 10:41 am
  • Tommy Hill Reply

    Great series Dark herald
    Thoroughly interesting
    Titan AE is a favourite of mine. Real shame it bombed

    January 19, 2021 at 9:06 pm
  • DJ Reply

    Slight historical nit-pick: the multiplane camera predates Bambi. You can see it used in the Academy Award winning short “The Old Mill,” for example, and it was used extensively in the feature “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.”

    I am not sure that “The Little Mermaid” really had any “innovation”– what was different about it technically from other films of the previous two decades? The thing which made it explode in popularity, I would argue, are the songs. Without them, there isn’t much there that hadn’t been done in previous “Princess” films, neither in terms of story or of art.

    January 19, 2021 at 11:48 pm
    • E Darwin Hartshorn Reply

      I would argue that Mermaid was an innovation, but not for any animation technique, but precisely because of the songs.

      The Little Mermaid’s major innovation was that was the point where Disney began following the Broadway Musical Theater playbook. There had always been songs before, and the Broadway talent that made the Little Mermaid came aboard during Oliver and Company, but TLM was the place where they convinced the execs to let them go full-playbook on a feature.

      It was an experiment. The execs expected it to fail and tried to stop it halfway through a couple of times. And when it succeeded wildly, they followed that playbook pretty much to the letter thereafter until Tarzan.

      In term of animation, though, I’m not sure how much innovation went into Mermaid. The deep canvas/3D tech was improved and pushed in Aladdin, Lion King, Beauty and the Beast — all the way to Treasure Planet, where it was most thoroughly employed.

      January 24, 2021 at 11:53 am
  • DJ Reply

    Klaus was astounding. I found my attention completely taken by the strength of the art, the storytelling, and so on. And not a “Let it Go” musical interlude in sight!
    There is no way it could have been done by the moribund big money animation studios in the USA, where they mouth “innovation” but are more interested in the strength of the virtue signal.

    January 20, 2021 at 12:06 am
  • jim Reply

    Lasseter is a chancer. Pixar was great because o the movie “Cars”. Cars may not be its most acclaimed achievement, however it is! Jorgen Klubien stole the script “Cars” and all that was part of it, most of it and so much more. John Lasseter is a fraud! it caught up with him. Lasseter hugely over rated wealthy man, wealthy men can challenge such offensive comments, he will not! its true. John Lasseter the rise and fall of Pixar.

    January 21, 2021 at 8:17 pm
    • cavalier973 Reply

      Cars is a fun movie. Very Americana, in tone, amd not just the nostalgic Radiator Springs segments. I’m not a fan of race car driving, but the races in that movie are my favorite part.

      All the cameos are great–even “Klick and Klack” have a semi-promient role as McQueen’s sponsors.

      January 25, 2021 at 4:49 am

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